Are workers now free in Burma?
Burma has seen many dramatic moves toward democracy and respect for human rights over the past six months. Most political prisoners have been released, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are about to contest by-elections, and there’s been some progress in ending the government’s bloody repression of ethnic groups. But has Burma improved its terrible labour rights record? And should foreign investors – long discouraged or barred under sanctions – be booking their air tickets to Rangoon? Not yet, and not yet.
Burma has long been a labour rights hellhole: rampant forced labour, banned unions and jails full of activists – all reasons why the EU has long maintained economic sanctions against the regime.
But things might be changing. A year ago, there were an estimated 54 trade unionist and labour activists behind bars. Now we think there are only half a dozen left.
Yet the tide of change has only reached so far. While it has been widely reported that the government has eased restrictions on trade unions, it hasn’t yet. Despite passing a Labour Organisations Law (And yes, let’s shorten that to “LOL”), in October last year, the government still hasn’t implemented it. Several unions have tried to register under the LOL but have been turned away by a government, that insiders say is desperately trying to form its own puppet unions.
The Federation of Trade Unions – Burma (FTUB), forced to operate in exile is still dubbed a terrorist organisation. For the new law to have any credibility this has to change.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the LOL itself, written without any input from unions, is “…so ambiguously drafted in key places, so lacking in critical detail and so disconnected from surrounding law…” that its benefits to workers are in doubt. Further, the law gives government officials far too much power to decide which unions can register, what collective bargaining can actually occur and what strikes or other actions are permissible.
And even if the law was better drafted, it can easily be overridden by laws providing for “law and order, community peace and tranquillity,” according to the constitution drafted by the Generals. And old repressive decrees still remain in force. Nevertheless the law, if ever implemented, will be a positive step beyond the current blanket ban on trade union activity.
Yet the blackest mark on labour rights against the current government is it’s failure to end forced labour. The FTUB, and the Federation of Trade Unions – Kawthoolei (FTUK) have most recently documented in exhaustive detail, “the persistence of widespread forced labour practices by civil and military authorities in almost all of the country’s states and divisions” (see page 241). The government has faced decades of withering international criticism on this issue and knows exactly what it needs to do to eradicate it.
Without such action, the western businesses that are threatening to flood into Burma will almost certainly be benefitting from slave labour. And the TUC and our Burmese sister organisations will be the first to blow the whistle on them.
There are other areas urgently needing change. As the Burma Campaign UK have pointed out, a key test will be the upcoming budget of a government which spends “almost 20 times more on the military than it does on health.”
So there has been a some positive but limited progress on labour rights, and I personally think that this should be recognised. So let’s relax e.g. travel bans against those who have proven to be genuine reformers in the new government. But the key economic sanctions should stay in place until we have free and independent trade unions and the end of forced labour in the country.